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AN astrologer in the year 1801 might have read in the stars that
a new galaxy of mathematical genius was about to blaze forth
inaugurating the greatest century of mathematical history. In
all that galaxy of talent there was no brighter star than Niels
Henrik Abel, the man of whom Hermite said, 'He has left
mathematicians something to keep them busy for five hundred
Abel's father was the pastor of the little village of Findo, in
the diocese of Kristiansand, Norway, where his second son,
Niels Henrikj was born on 5 August 1802. On the father's side
several ancestors had been prominent in the work of the church
and all, including Abel's father, were men of culture. Anne
Marie Simonsen, Abel's mother, was chiefly remarkable for her
great beauty, love of pleasure, and general flightiness - quite an
exciting combination for a pastor's helpmeet. From her Abel
inherited his striking good looks and a very human desire to get
something more than everlasting hard work out of life, a desire
he was seldom able to gratify.
The pastor was blessed with seven children in all at a time
when Norway was desperately poor as the result of wars with
England and Sweden, to say nothing of a famine thrown in for
good measure between wars. Nevertheless the family was a
happy one. In spite of pinching poverty and occasional empty
stomachs they kept their chins up. -There is a charming picture
of Abel after his mathematical genius had seized him sitting by
the fireside with the others chattering and laughing in the room
while he researched with one eye on his mathematics and the
other on his brothers and sisters. The noise never distracted him
and he joined in the badinage as he wrote.